Showtime’s The Chi, which premiered January 7, is one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of 2018. Its 33-year-old creator, Lena Waithe, became the first Black woman ever to win a comedy writing Emmy (for an autobiographical episode of the Netflix series Master of None).
With The Chi, her intent is to depict Chicago as it looks from the inside — a goal that drew Common, a.k.a Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., a Chicago rapper/actor known for his community consciousness, to sign on as an executive producer. That ambition has placed the series at the center of a debate on the function of fictive representations of urban America. Is this latest iteration of urban vérité — a cinematic style popularized by HBO’s The Wire—a fruitful dive into an authentic Chicago, or just another TV safari featuring picaresque tales of exotic natives?
Black Chicagoans are particularly sensitive to this question, given the city’s highly visible violence problems and its already damaged reputation. This is a lot of sociological baggage to throw at a series intended to entertain a mass audience. And to focus on the need for positive imagery or an accurate class analysis is to confuse cultural therapy and political analysis for aesthetic criticism. No matter how pure Waithe’s motives, the series has to deliver as entertainment and as art. On that score, Waithe’s effort is admirable, though a mixed bag.
The dialogue has a colloquial authenticity — aided, no doubt, by the crew of black writers Waithe assembled — as do the set shots of various neighborhoods, although Chicagoans may find some geographical inconsistencies. She is working in a genre virtually invented by David Simon (The Wire), and there are some Simon alums in The Chi to sharpen that point. But rather than focusing on the intricacies and implications of the underground economy — as The Wire did in Baltimore — the show centers instead on community dynamics.
The story opens with a wildly coiffed boy named Coogie (Jahking Guillory) carefreely riding his bike though hardscrabble neighborhoods, playfully interacting with Arab store owners— a ubiquitous presence in these parts — and just doing kid stuff. It isn’t long before he’s ensnared in a net woven by one of those murders that keep Chicago in the headlines, and his death is added to the toll. Waithe mines complexity out of an all-tootypical story of community violence by refracting the tale through the sensibilities of a wide array of characters, an audacious undertaking for a relative neophyte.
The series follows four (male) main characters as their lives intersect: Coogie’s older brother, Brandon (Jason Mitchell), a hard-charging striver with restaurateur aspirations; Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a 12-year-old who is both too wise and too naïve; Emmett (Jacob Lattimore), a materialistic teenage lothario who is suddenly burdened with fatherhood; and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an oldschool slacker whose adopted son’s murder starts the whole thing.
All of these characters have wispy connections that firm up later and reveal a web of socialization that inadvertently perpetuates dysfunction. Tracy (Tai Davis), Ronnie’s ex and the mother of the first man murdered, insists that he “do something” about the death of their child. Coogie’s murder places a similar street obligation on his brother Brandon, who’s on the verge of a professional breakthrough. Waithe’s script neither evades nor accentuates the negative as much as it seeks to contextualize what is usually projected as irredeemably negative.
Coogie’s impulse to swipe the chain and shoes from a dead body, for instance, seems an acceptable option in the predatory context of these neighborhoods. Waithe’s canny observations of community etiquette are her unique contribution to the everexpanding urban crime genre. Her depiction of Emmett’s unintentional fatherhood captures its awkward quality with a rare insight, especially for a woman.
In fact, if there’s any script deficiency, it’s the lack of a fully rounded female role. I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect a television series to discard all stereotypes — reliable tropes ground viewers. Thus, The Chi gives us the sympathetic outsider cop, the tormenting harridan, the schoolyard skirmishes. By and large, the series manages to stay true to Waithe’s intention to humanize the denizens of her fictive South Side. The question many are asking, though, is, do these times demand the portrayal of denizens with different kinds of stories?